Monday, July 16, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #42. "Moonlight" (2016)

Scene from Moonlight
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

*NOTE: Originally ran as part of the Nothing But the Best series

Background Information

Released: November 18, 2016 
Release Number: 42
Directed By: Barry Jenkins
Starring:  Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson
Plot: A chronicle of the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young, African-American, gay man growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Major Awards:
Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

In 2017, The Academy was going through an identity crisis. With two whole years of complaints about the Oscars being white, it was up to the class of 2016 to produce a few nominees that would change the perception not only literally, but qualitatively. It was in this case that director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight not only achieved unfathomable heights for the A24 movie studio, but it also started a new era for Best Picture winners. It wasn't just the first all-black movie to win the category, but also the first LGBT one as well. While it's too early to determine how influential Moonlight's legacy will be in shaping the next generation of winners, it definitely comes as a revolutionary film to an awards system that prided itself on more classical winners. Oscars So White was over. Now it was a new era for films like Moonlight to win those same awards.

The story starts in 2003 with writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. He wrote the autobiographical play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," which was done to cope with his mother's death from AIDS. It was a semi-autobiographical story that didn't have much popularity at the time, which caused it to be shelved for a decade. It wasn't until Jenkins, following his directorial debut Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, discovered the script. Having attempted to produce his own screenplays unsuccessfully, he collaborated with his producer to determine that his sophomore movie would be "cinematic and personal." In the time following, Jenkins was introduced to McCraney, where they discussed adapting his play. The only major change was that instead of jumping across three different narratives, that Jenkins would instead go chronologically. It helped that both of these men shared similar backgrounds, which helped to make them more sympathetic to the story. 

Of the cast, only Andre Holland had read McCraney's play before working with Jenkins. Naomie Harris, who is the only actor to appear throughout the entire movie, was leery to join the movie for fear of playing a stereotypical drug addict. When she was persuaded that the role would be more complex, she signed on and analyzed YouTube videos of addicts to get a better sense of how to play the role. The various actors who played Chiron Harris (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert) were forced to film separately and never saw each other's performance. Jenkins insisted that this would help make each performance more authentic. What was more impressive was that despite this limitation, Jenkins and others praised each actor's ability to play the role similarly in spite of the handicap. Mahershala Ali, who was on House of Cards at the time, signed onto the role of Juan after believing that it was important for him to play a positive portrayal of a black role model.

Moonlight became the first film produced by A24. It began filming on October 14, 2015 in Miami, Florida over 25 days. The area was so familiar to Jenkins' youth that their shooting at Liberty Square (a housing project) went undisturbed thanks to convincing residents (and a few family members) that Jenkins used to live there. Harris, who was busy shooting Spectre around the same time, shot all of her scenes in three days. The film's three segments were shot to imitate different film stocks: the first emphasizing skin tones with Fuji, the second added cyan to the images with Agfa, and the third was modified Kodak. The effect of color partially came from placing oil on the actors to provide a sheen to them. During these moments, the camera would be covered but create light flashes. When Jenkins noticed this, he felt that it symbolized the passage of time, and used it to transtion in between the many narratives. To create an authentic sound, composer Nicholas Britelli created a "chopped and screwed" approach to the soundtrack.

The film would make its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2016. The critical acclaim that followed helped to boost the film's presence. Its most iconic piece of advertising was a triptych-style poster that combined the faces of the three different actors in a colorful image. With limited advertising beyond that, the film gained success from word of mouth. The film opened in four theaters with the highest per screen average of $100,519, which set the record for the year until La La Land was released a few weeks later. The film would go on to gross $27.8 million in the United States, with a worldwide total of $65 million. As of 2017, it is A24's highest grossing movie. Many critics placed the film atop their Best of the year lists, with many calling it the best movie of the year. With a 98% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it was one of the highest rated movies of the year. 

The film's groundswell was benefited in part from the lingering Oscars So White movement of the previous year, and the racial tension caused by the recent American presidential election. Mahershala Ali made sure to discuss his Muslim culture when he won Best Actor at the Golden Globes. When it came to the Oscars, the film surprised everyone with eight Oscar nominations. Before it won anything, it was in many ways a record breaking film. Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon became the first African Americans to be nominated for Best Editing. Jenkins also was only the fourth black male nominated for Best Director (while Steve McQueen was the first black to win the category for 12 Years a Slave, Jenkins was the first black American to win), and he would be the first to win for Best Picture and Best Director. Ali was also the first Muslim actor to win an acting Oscar. Moonlight's Best Picture win was also the first time that an all-black cast had won the category, as well as the first LGBT film to win the category. It was also the second lowest-grossing movie to win Best Picture after The Hurt Locker, and the second lowest production budget to do so behind Rocky (the first if adjusted).

There was a controversy regarding how the film won. With major competitor La La Land expected to win, presenter Warren Beatty read the name off. However, it was a card from the previous award, which was for Best Actress winner Emma Stone. It was revealed that they had received the wrong card. It lead to one of the most memorable moments in Oscars history. To add irony, part of La La Land's acceptance speech was about achieving dreams. When Moonlight was announced the winners, their acceptance speech featured the line "To hell with dreams." The news came as a shock, and one that lead to the highest increase in post-Oscars box office for a Best Picture winner. The film also allowed actors to appear in an advertisement the following day in which they were shot in their underwear. This win came in part from the increase in a younger and more diverse Academy voting pool. It has also helped to raise the question as to how the future Oscar seasons would look, believing that the surprises would be greater and different from long held patterns. 

The success of Moonlight marked a changing point not only for A24, but for The Academy in general. It was one of several films that helped to shift the conversation regarding diverse representation. It was a film that showed how many other stories were out there beyond the white straight narrative. It has yet to be seen how influential this film will be to future Oscar winners, but the message had been sent. Things were going to be different for The Academy. It's a win that makes the following year one of the most exciting in recent years, and leaves one to wonder how things will change. Beyond that, the film was an ambitious indie that managed to reflect a new way of filming actors, as well as how to tell a narrative that isn't always conventional. In many ways, Moonlight was the winner that The Academy needed in 2017 to send a message. Now the hope is that they continue to spread it. 

Up Next: Oasis: Supersonic (2016)

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